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Truth, rights, reconciliation central to Colombian peace process

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Picture: REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez – People hold a banner reading “Colombia, we are all” during a march in opposition to road blockades and violence after a month of national protests, in Bogota, Colombia May 30, 2021.

By Siphamandla Zondi and Selemo Nkwe

As war and conflict rage in various parts of the world, we are reminded how precious peace and coexistence are.

Wars, like those in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has raged on for a long time, and the damage to society is deep. Some wars, like in Ukraine, are young but their impact on society is huge.

Yet, the release this week of the report of the Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Recurrence Commission of Colombia has lessons for societies in conflict or those that emerged from the war.

The commission was set up according to the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Farc) guerrillas. The agreement sought to bring an end to decades of protracted conflict that involved more than the two parties and took a heavy toll on ordinary Colombians and threatened the prosperity of the country. In the wisdom of the parties, a peace agreement was not sufficient to end the war and heal the scars it caused. They had learnt from the handling of internecine conflicts in various countries. They had learnt that without efforts at reconciliation agreements, there would not be lasting peace. Such reconciliation was not automatic but needed to be facilitated through a structured truth-telling process.

This enables victims to tell their stories and to seek closure by demanding to know what war parties know and a systematic recording of who did what to whom. Such truth-telling is supposed to lead to some form of justice for the victims and reckoning for the perpetrators. The Colombian commission is called the Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Recurrence Commission to express the three aims of the commission. The first is to establish the truth about what happened during the war.

The report of the commission details the immense pain suffered by ordinary Colombians from the war. It shows that the unarmed civilian population bore the brunt of the violence of war. It showed that “out of every 10 people killed violently in the armed conflict, eight were civilians.” The second aim was to give recognition to the victims whose human rights were violated. This is out of the understanding that the victims’ suffering and pain need to be acknowledged and recognised as part of the healing process. The pain suffered by victims cannot be removed, but victims and society can come to terms with it via recognition.

The public expression by victims and the public acknowledgement of their pain by others was a crucial part of the commission process. Figuring out how to deal with the pain of more than 120 000 Colombians who disappeared without a trace during the war was part of this acknowledgement. The process also recognised the particularities of violence as experienced by women, children, and LGTBIQ+ people. In this, the cruelty of paramilitary and military forces is revealed.

A critical element of truth is the role of the US in fuelling the conflict, militarising society, and hiding information about what it knew about the war. Of course, the role of the US in Latin American wars is long revealed in works that detail just how crucial the US’s Monroe doctrine was in the making of an unstable Caribbean, Central, and Latin America.

The third aim was to lay the ground for reconciliation and coexistence amid wounds and pain. This is about coming to terms with the past by acknowledging the wrong, forgiving the remorseful, and committing to work together to build a more peaceful, just, and inclusively prosperous Colombia. This depends on what Colombians do and what the international community does to assist them. It also hangs on the government to prosecute violations that remain acknowledged and culprits that have not come forward to repent before the nation.

What everybody does to repair the harm caused in many communities will determine whether Colombia buries its terrible past and plants seeds of a glorious future. The commission recommends several steps to assist the country in moving into such a future. It urges the Colombian government to improve the implementation of the 2016 peace deal and continue talks with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN). It proposes the expansion of humanitarian assistance to all affected. It recommends a focus on ethnic minorities and women. It calls for an end to the government’s militarised approach to conflict.

The commission wants an inculcation of the doctrine of human rights. This will involve the separation of the National Police from the Ministry of Defence. Furthermore, it advocates reforms to the country’s justice system, calling for greater independence for the Attorney General’s Office, as well as for institutions assigned to investigate human rights violations.

Professor Zondi is the director of the Institute of Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg.

Nkwe is a junior researcher at the Institute for Global African Affairs (a joint initiative of the University of Johannesburg and the University of West Indies).